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Superfood Flackery

November 30, 2016

Nutrition in the media is painted with fads and buzzwords.  Terms such as all natural, organic, heart healthy, and antioxidants are overwhelmingly used by manufacturers on front of package food labels on our supermarket shelves.  These practices make it difficult for the consumer to decipher real scientific evidence from hip food trends. In recent years, the ubiquitous term “superfood” has been placed under scrutiny, so we at The Sage decided to take a deeper look.  A UK National Health Service report in 2011 deemed that much of what is written about superfoods is “innacurate or unhelpful.”  It states that the literature surrounding superfoods is typically oversimplified and fails to point out the limitations of a food item.  The report also points out the contradictory conclusions surrounding superfoods: “the news is full of contradictory reports and often the same food is declared healthy one day and harmful the next” (1).  Does this mean we should ignore the concept of superfoods? Yes, but not completely. 

The media portrays superfoods as a miraculous strategy to prevent or cure illnesses; it boasts of “cancer fighting” and “cholesterol lowering” health claims.  The actual definition of a superfood is much simpler: a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being. Foods such as quinoa, goji and acai berries, and chia seeds are marketed as superfoods that can have
profound effects on your health over other [more commonly consumed] foods. However, oranges are a “superfood” even though they have not been declared as one by mass media.

It is true that these foods (mentioned above) have a high nutrient value.  Quinoa is a complete protein (it contains all of the essential amino acids) and has several B vitamins, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, vitamin E, and fiber.  Goji and acai berries are rich in antioxidants, protecting against free radicals that cause damage to our cells and thus have anti-carcinogenic properties.  Chia
contain high levels of omega-3s, which have neurodevelopmental benefits, promote heart health, and regulate cholesterol levels. These foods DO have several benefits.  However, the superfood pedestal is problematic in several ways:

  1. Items called “superfoods” are typically very expensive and not necessarily "better for you"
  2. In addition to diet, there are many factors that contribute to overall health and disease
  3. An increased superfood intake is not equivalent to a healthful diet

Lentils, for example, are a low-cost food that have many of the same health claims as superfoods:  cholesterol-lowering fiber, ability to manage blood-sugar disorders, promotes heart health, and provides a good source of protein, B-vitamins, and several minerals.  Other examples of low-cost foods that are just as nutrient dense as those labeled “superfood” include Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cooked tomatoes, walnuts, yogurt, peppers, turmeric, and carrots.  Nutrient-dense foods are not only accessible to those with a higher income; healthy foods are available for those on a budget.

The second and third ideas are quite simple.  While many foods are warranted in their health claims, it is unrealistic to believe that one food, or a group of foods, can have miraculous implications in your health.  There are several contributing factors to an individual’s overall health: genetic predisposition, environment, exercise, diet history, just to name a few.  For example, eating goji berries does not necessarily eliminate the risk of cancer, especially if there is a family history of the illness.  Registered
dietitians encourage individuals to eat a varied diet in order to meet recommended daily levels of all vitamins and minerals.  Several servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, unprocessed foods, and regular exercise is the key to overall good health.

When you see the word “superfood,” it may just be a reflection of the clever marketing industry rather than the answer to a healthy lifestyle.  Individuals should eat a varied diet and can achieve nutrient-dense food consumption through less expensive food choices.  For more ideas of low cost alternatives, check out this article. You can also learn more about SuperFoods here.

Happy Eating!

Samantha Mogil, Nutrition Intern

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